Sunday, October 5, 2008

Admitting mission defeat

This week, I conclude a three-year term on a local nonprofit board. It was an assignment that felt – still feels – like a perfect fit for both my interests and the skills that I can potentially bring to the assignment.

Yet, as I anticipate this last meeting, I can’t help acknowledging my complete failure to fulfill my ultimate responsibilities or find/generate inspiration to move me out of complacency. I acknowledge that up front, so that any reader encountering this post knows that I understand board membership’s bottom line. Governance is an active role, one that we not only follow via bylaws, routines and policies, but one that we create and advance by commitment to mission and sometimes sheer will when the work is hard or tedious.

That said, I must explain – for myself more than anyone – where I failed. The challenges that came with this particular assignment were large, larger than I’d encountered before. That is, frankly, what prompted me to say yes when invited. Having the opportunity to shape a nonprofit from its organizational toddlerhood is a rare thing. It’s also incredibly tough, as one is simultaneously creating necessary infrastructure while also trying to keep an eye on the mission horizon.

This is where I think the board, and I as a member, fell short. We lost that horizon, and I reached a point where I gave up pushing. That is my biggest failure. My role could have been – should have been – pressing to stay focused on our reason for being and for the role that we aspired to play in our community. But I tired, and I lost heart. I fell short of my responsibilities.

Magnifying the gap, and fueling my fatigue, were two very different board experiences that I encountered in the last few months: conducting my doctoral research featuring a nonprofit board for which mission is everything, and serving on another board where a difficult situation prompted a profound moment of mission clarity that promises to lead us to a new phase of energy and productivity.

My takeaway from this personal board failure is this: mission IS everything. My ultimate responsibility (and perhaps my most critical role) may be to insist that we leave every board meeting feeling good about our response to this question: How did we advance our mission today?

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